Sweet rewards

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GET EARLY HARVESTS, BIG YIELDS, AND INTENSE FLAVORS WHEN YOU GROW A VARIETY OF SMALL SWEET PEPPERS IN YOUR GARDEN.

At a spring plant sale a few seasons ago, I picked up 'Gourmet', a bell pepper that promised loads of orange fruit. I settled the little plant into a hot spot in my Seattle garden, tucked it in with a blanket of compost, and babied it all summer long. What did I get for my effort? Three big, rock-hard, dark green peppers.

My not-so-Gourmet experience showed me that when it comes to peppers, it pays to diversify. I now hedge my bets and grow a collection of sweet peppers, including long and crinkled Italian fryers, short and squat pimientos, and crunchy banana peppers. These smaller sweet peppers start fruiting early in the season, produce loads of peppers (even in cooler climates), have intense, sweet flavors, and taste good grilled, roasted, fried, and pickled. To help you get the best and sweetest pepper harvest, I talked to experts from around the country for their hints and tricks, and favorite varieties.
Pick Your Peppers

"What makes peppers hot or not hot is the presence of compounds called capsaicinoids," says John Stommel, a research geneticist at the USDA, who is working on breeding sweet peppers with improved flavor. Sweet peppers are technically peppers that contain little or no capsaicinoids, but this fact alone doesn't determine if the fruit will have a sweet flavor. "Sugar content and organic acids influence the flavor of peppers," Stommel explains. Bell peppers may be the most popular sweet pepper at supermarkets, but as an organic gardener, you have tons of other delicious choices to grow.

Frying peppers, also sometimes called cubanelle peppers, have long, tapered, crumpled-looking fruits with thin flesh. The stout plants produce big yields of peppers that taste good fried, grilled, and added to sauces.

Blocky sweet peppers have wide shoulders and broad, tapered fruits that range from 3 to 7 inches long. They are known for their medium-thick walls and crunchy flesh, and make an excellent substitute in any recipe that calls for bell peppers.

Round sweet peppers, including cheese, pimiento, and cherry types, are squat with very thick flesh and lots of seeds. These peppers produce heavily and are popular pickled, chopped fresh into salads, or served with cheese.

Wax peppers, also known as banana peppers, are carrot-shaped with smooth, medium-thick, yellow flesh that ripens to bright red. Stuff these peppers with cheese or grill them with other vegetables for a tasty antipasto plate.
Find a Sweet Spot

"Plant sweet peppers in the sunniest, warmest spot in your garden," recommends Laura Niemi, the garden program manager at Seattle Tilth, a nonprofit that teaches people to garden organically. To get the moderately rich, fluffy, well-draining soil peppers grow best in, work a 1-inch layer of manure or compost into your soil in the fall and then plant a winter-hardy cover crop, such as crimson clover. Cover crops help prevent erosion and nutrient leaching over the winter, and when you turn the plants under in spring, they add valuable organic matter and nutrients back into your soil. Finish off your spring soil preparation by thoroughly weeding the bed and then digging in a thin layer of compost or a balanced, granulated organic fertilizer just before planting.

When choosing your pepper site, also think about what crops grew there last year. Peppers belong to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which also includes tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes, and all of these vegetables suffer from the same diseases and pests. A basic way to avoid pepper problems is to practice crop rotation. Simply group your nightshade plants together and rotate them to a different spot in the garden each year. This organic gardening technique works by denying soil-dwelling pests and pathogens easy access to their favorite host plants and thereby causing them to starve. Crop rotation works best on a three- to five-year cycle. If you have a small garden, consider including containers in your rotation plan.
Time Your Transplanting

Don't plant your peppers too early. Remember, these plants are native to tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America, which means they grow best when the soil and weather is warm. Seedlings do not tolerate frost, grow best when planted in soil that is about 60°F, and thrive in daytime temperatures between 70 and 80°F and nighttime temperatures that stay above 55°F.

Planting too early can stunt the plants' growth, says James Weaver, who with his wife, Alma, grows more than 300 different peppers, including 30 varieties of sweet peppers, at Meadow View Farm in Bowers, Pennsylvania. A good rule of thumb for peppers is to plant them outside two weeks after the average last-frost date. In most areas of the country the soil will have warmed up to 60°F by then.

But if your region has long, cool springs or a late last-frost date, you can get a jump on the season by stretching black plastic over your pepper bed two weeks before your last-frost date. Bury the edges of the plastic in a trench to keep it taut across the soil. The plastic traps solar energy and heats the soil up to 8°F more than uncovered, adjacent soil. Leave the plastic on for four weeks, or until nighttime temperatures stay above 55°F for a week. Then make slits in the plastic and plant your seedlings.

If you must wait for the soil and weather to warm, transplant your pepper seedlings from their small a- or 4-inch pots into gallon-sized containers to allow them to continue to grow and develop robust root systems. Give your plants an added layer of protection from fluctuating day and nighttime temperatures by covering them with a row cover after planting, Weaver suggests.
Plant Like the Pros

"I plant my peppers along pathways so I can see their beautiful colors and shapes," says Leslie Doyle, who is an Organic Gardening test gardener in Las Vegas. In her hot climate, peppers often suffer from sunscald--tan or translucent spots caused by exposure to direct, hot (above 90°F) sunlight. To prevent this problem, Doyle plants three pepper seedlings (grown in 4-inch pots) in a single gallon-sized hole. The dense foliage of the close-growing plants shades the fruit and really reduces sunscald, Doyle says. In gardens with more moderate temperatures, space individual pepper plants 18 to 24 inches apart in rows that are a feet apart, using small tomato cages or bamboo stakes to support the plants.

When transplanting, take the time to fully hydrate your plants and the soil, advises Jim Ayars, an agricultural engineer for the USDA, who studies optimal pepper irrigation. Water your pepper seedlings twice: once 24 hours before planting and then again an hour before. Water your soil deeply a few hours prior to transplanting so it has time to drain before you dig the holes.

"I try to transplant on an overcast day in the late afternoon to reduce shock," Laura Niemi says. To plant, dig a hole that is the same depth as the pepper's pot, but twice the diameter. Rather than putting the plant in the bottom of the hole and backfilling, Niemi uses one hand to suspend the pepper in the hole and the other to backfill around the plant. "This helps the roots stay kind of suspended in the soil," she explains. "Just make sure the soil level of the plant is level with the bed."

After planting, sprinkle worm castings (sold at nurseries and online at yelmworms.com) around the base of the plant and water it in. "I like worm castings because they have readily available nutrients and they give peppers a little boost in the beginning of the season," Niemi tells us.
Mulch Matters

After planting, wait four to six weeks before adding a layer of mulch around the base of your peppers. "Mulch insulates cool soil and prevents it from warming up even more," explains Weaver. "Wait until the soil warms, cultivate to get rid of the weeds, and then mulch." A beautiful and beneficial alternative to laying down straw or grass mulch is to apply a layer of compost directly under the peppers and plant a living mulch around the plants. "I grow white sweet alyssum between plants," Doyle says. "It stays low, attracts pollinators, smells wonderful, and shades the soil." Seed the alyssum at planting time, or for quicker results, plant seedlings, spacing them about 6 inches apart for total soil coverage.
Water and Feed Wisely

Peppers don't need much additional fertilizer during the growing season if you spend time in the fall and spring working on the quality of your soil. You can supplement your plants' nutrient needs with a liquid, foliar fertilizer (either compost tea or fish and seaweed) when they begin to flower and again four to six weeks later if you grow peppers in containers or are still building up healthy soil in the garden. "I really like the Age Old Organics fertilizer Age Old Bloom," Niemi says.

Your sweet peppers' watering needs depend on the intensity of sunlight in your garden, air temperature, relative humidity, wind, and soil type, says Ayars, who recommends observing your plants and soil to help determine when and how much you should water. Keeping the soil evenly moist, rather than letting it dry deep down and then flooding it with water, helps the plants grow quickly and evenly and prevents plant stress and also blossom-end rot.
Prevent Problems

Sometimes perfectly healthy-looking pepper plants drop their blossoms before fruit can set. This condition can occur when daytime temperatures rise over 90°F or night temperatures remain above 75°F or below 60°F. "Mulching the soil, feeding with a 5-10-5 organic fertilizer, and foliar feeding with kelp will help keep the blossoms on the plants well above 90°F or below 60°F," says Doyle, who deals with huge daytime and nighttime temperature differences in her desert garden. "Peppers can set fruit here even on days when the temperature reaches 115°F if the plants are planted intensively and fertilized regularly." Kelp contains all the trace elements and micronutrients that strengthen the plants against the heat and help them to flower and set fruit. If blossom drop is a problem in your garden, thoroughly spray your plants with liquid kelp at four-week intervals.

Viruses are the most persistent disease problem with peppers, because the diseases continue to evolve, says Stommel. They are often transmitted by aphids, which feed on tender pepper leaves and stems. Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) is the most common pepper virus. Avoid problems with CMV and other viruses in your garden by planting disease-resistant varieties and controlling aphids with insecticidal soap.
Harvest Often

"The sooner you start picking peppers, the better," Weaver says. "If you let every fruit turn red, the plants slow down." To get the best yields, Weaver begins by harvesting misshapen fruit as soon as they reach the mature green stage (darker green and firm when squeezed). "Picking off peppers when the plant is young helps divert energy to growing a bigger plant that can support more peppers," Doyle explains. "Harvesting often once the plant is mature encourages it to bloom more and produce more peppers."

Peppers are brittle plants that easily break if you pull the fruits off. "I use florist scissors that have thin needlenose blades, because you can weasel in there and snip off the peppers right at the stem and preserve the rest of the branch," Niemi says. If you have more peppers than you can eat, remove the seeds and slice them into pieces. Then, spread the pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet. Stick the sheet in the freezer, and when the peppers are solid, load them into plastic freezer bags. The peppers will be soft when you defrost them, but still perfect for adding homegrown flavor to soups, sauces, and frittatas all winter long.

For information on how to plant cover crops and to watch a slide show that demonstrates how to build a unique, arched pepper support system, visit OrganicGardening.com.
SIX PEPPER PICKS

1. 'Jimmy Nardello'. An heirloom Italian frying type that ripens in 80 days. Slow Food USA chose to include this pepper in its Ark of Taste program, which is working to save foods with economic or cultural heritage in the United States. 2. 'Sweet Banana'. This classic hybrid yields carrot-shaped fruits that taste good at both the immature yellow and mature red stages. Very productive and ready to pick in 65 days. 3. 'Pritavit'. Gorgeous ruffled fruit with thick walls and juicy flesh. Perfect for stuffing and pickling. Heavy yielding and early, with fruit ripening in about 75 days. 4. 'Alba Regia'. A blocky Hungarian heirloom that ripens to a deep red. The peppers have thick, very sweet, crunchy flesh and are ready in 90 days. 5. 'Lipstick'. This narrow, blocky pepper features peppers that ripen early (in 73 days) and have an intense, sweet flavor. 6. 'Corno di Toro'. These "horn of the bull" peppers definitely need staking, because by midsummer the plant is covered in fruit, This heirloom is known for its flavorful fruit and early productivity. Expect ripe fruit in 75 to 80 days.
NEWBIE HINT

When feeding plants with liquid fertilizer, add ¼ teaspoon of dish soap to a quart of water. Then mix in the liquid fertilizer per the package's instructions. The soap helps the fertilizer coat the leaf surface.
MASTER'S TIP

Research from the Ohio State University shows that pepper seedlings started in a mix of 8 pars soil-less seed-starting medium to 2 parts worm castings grow faster and have fewer problems with aphids and mealybugs.

PHOTO (COLOR): Harvest hint: Avoid breaking the plant by using pruners to pick your peppers.

PHOTO (COLOR): High stakes: Pepper support options include store-bought pepper ladders (top) and wire cages (center right). Or make your own bamboo cages with curved stakes (above) or a pepper corral using bamboo poles (right, top and bottom).

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By Will Evans Galloway

Photographs by Robyn Lehr

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